Noisome Spirits

by John Harvey

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John ab John 03:28
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What is here 01:55
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about

Edmund Jones (1702–93) was a Calvinistic Congregationalist minister, born in Penllwyn in the parish of Aberystruth, Monmouthshire. This was a mountainous and forested landscape, popularly believed to be the abode of dark forces. He wrote two books dedicated to these agencies. The original was published in 1767, and a sequel, entitled 'A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the Principality of Wales', in 1780. They are collections of testimonies describing allegedly genuine encounters with spiritual entities, such as fairies, ghosts, devils, and witches. The accounts were collected during his itinerancy around the parishes and counties of Wales, by word of mouth for the most part.

In 2003, I published an edition that incorporated the testimonies from Jones’ two books, as well as those referred to in his A Geographical, Historical, and Religious Account of the Parish of Aberystruth (1779). Jones’s accounts deal with how the lower orders of society in particular conceived the spiritual world. The narratives also preserve the peculiarities of the spirits’ noises, the hearers’ response to such, and the relationship of the sounds to the context. This was rural Wales prior to the industrial age, through which people habitually travelled by coach and on foot and horseback. He described its forests, woods, mountainsides, fields, lakes, rivers, coach-paths, and lanes as being inhabited with the noises of, variously, the hellish, heavenly, revenant, malevolent, fierce, and wild.

The auditory apparitions were manifest in the forms of strange speech, spirits imitating the voices of the deceased, psalm-singing, angelic choirs, coaches and horses, woeful moans, the groans of the dying in extremis, quiet voices, animal-like sounds, tree-fall, strange whistling, and deafening sounds loud enough to disturb the fabric of the landscape in which they were heard.

Many of the auditory attributes of spirit noises were adapted from the natural world and everyday experience. Their supernatural signification was summoned by the fearful concomitants of the phenomena, such as darkness (many of the auditions took place at night), the often strange and frightening visible aspect, and the unnerving modulations, exaggerations, and deformations of the auditory source.

Prior to the invention of sound recording and playback technology, spirit sounds could neither be captured, other than as a memory or textual account, nor recalled other than through verbal or written testimony (which functions Jones’s collection fulfils.) As in the case of the visual accounts of spirits, witnesses described auditory manifestations in terms of attributes associated with known and natural acoustic phenomena. Similarly, these attributes are variously combined, amplified, disrupted, recontextualized, and re-interpreted in such a way as to evoke a sense of the unworldly and threatening.

Poltergeists produced noises, in the manner of the living, by either throwing or beating things against other things. Disembodied or invisible spirits frequently imitated humans and animal noises, so as to appear either entirely natural, or in some manner distorted, or either far louder or softer than their customary volume. For instance, the voice of one female spirit was said to be ‘as if it were a drum’. There are accounts, too, of angels singing, as well as fairies playing music. Other sounds were like those associated with nature and material culture, such as trees falling, sticks cracking, a roof collapsing, and iron chains rattling.

Noisome Spirits returns some of these narratives to a sonic experience. In so doing, it seeks to make the witnesses’ audition sensible, by presencing the sounds and – following Jones’ own determination – providing a ‘vivid account’ of apparitions … albeit acoustically. The objective, however, is not to present a simulacrum of the original sounds but, rather, to summon their sonic essence and the witnesses’ sense of the dread and otherness associated with them, imaginatively and abstractly.

As in the case of the previous releases in The Aural Bible series, the source material determines the process of composition. (That is to say, the creative outcome is governed by the object under scrutiny.) Jones’s accounts and the original medium of their dissemination – the printed book – serve as both the ‘score’ for, and ‘instrument’ of, their translation into a sonic form. The sounds are derived from, for example: the text of the accounts read aloud; the pages of a book being turned and riffled though; crumpling paper; and the noise made by a letterpress machine (like that which would have been used to print Jones’s books).

The semantic content of Jones's accounts, and the order of the events described in the narratives, inform the compositions’ substance, conception, structure, and development. A variety of natural, supernatural, and man-made sounds are referred to in the texts. They are either imitated or evoked using the derived sounds. The 'Source Text' (as it is referred to in the individual track descriptors) serves both as a 'libretto' and fountainhead of the compositional material. These texts have been variously slowed down or speeded up, played forward or in reverse, edited, reordered, modulated, and superimposed.

Some of the natural sounds mentioned in the accounts are also re-presented by repurposing (using the same strategies), recordings made of the natural world. Thus, for example, the sound of breaking twigs, heard in 'Such a noise as if all the hedges about were tore to pieces', is transformed into that of hedges disintegrating. Nothing is what it appears to be. The only exception is heard at the conclusion of ‘John ab John’: the sound of a solitary blackbird singing (albeit multiplied many times and rendered at different speeds), which I recorded in my garden on April 24, 2020, during the initial Covid-19 lockdown.

Noisome Spirits is the fourth release in The Aural Bible series. The series deals with the Judaeo-Christian scriptures as the written, spoken, and heard word. It explores the cultural articulations and adaptations of the Bible within the Protestant tradition. The works on the album embark upon a critical, responsive, and interpretive intervention with aspects of its sound culture.

The websites that accompany the series’ CD albums are dynamic. Material will be added, and sub-sections fleshed-out, as opportunities for the work to be presented, discussed, reviewed, and broadcast, present themselves.

Further information about this album’s concepts and compositions is available at the following: noisomespirits.weebly.com

credits

released July 15, 2021

Personnel: John Harvey

Instrumentation and Production: Adobe Audition CC, Apple MacBookPro and iMac OS 10.16, Apogee Duet audio interface, Eventide ModFactor, PitchFactor, TimeFactor, and Space pedals, custom personal computer and Windows 10, Korg Kaos Pad Effects Processor Quad and Kaos Pad Dynamic Effects Sampler, Moog MF-101 Low Pass Filter, OTO Biscuit 8-bit effects and analogue filter, PreSonus Studioline AR8 Mixer, Revox A77 Stereo Taperecorder, RME Babyface Pro and Fireface UCX audio interface, Sherman Filterbank 2 filter unit, and Sherman/Rodec Restyler filter unit.

Sources: [Anon.], 'An Account of Terrible Apparitions and Progenies' [no imprint], Edmund Jones, 'A Geographical, Historical, and Religious Account of the Parish of Aberystruth', Trefeca, 1779; 'The Appearance of Evil: Apparitions of Spirits in Wales', edited with an Introduction by John Harvey, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003. Edmund Prys, 'Salmau Cân' in 'The Book of Common Prayer' (London: 1621). Henry Lewes, 'The True and Wonderful Relation of the Dreadful Fighting and Groans that were Heard and Seen in the Ayr, on the Fifteenth of this Instant January in Carmarthen', in South Wales ([London]: W. T. & S. C., 1681).

I would like to thank the staff at the National Library of Wales and Screen and Sound Archive for their encouragement and continued support of The Aural Bible series.

​All compositions by: John Harvey
Engineered and produced by: John Harvey
Cover concept by: John Harvey
Conceived and mastered at: School of Art, Aberystwyth University, 2020
Prepared for CD by: Sain, Llandwrog, Caernarfon, Gwynedd
Released by: Screen and Sound Archive, 2021 (GENCD8005)
All compositions ℗ & © 2020 John Harvey

The project and recording are a collaboration between the Screen and Sound Archive, The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth and the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.

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John Harvey Ceredigion, UK

I’m a practitioner and historian of sound art and visual art, and Professor of Art at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, UK. My research field is the sonic and visual culture of religion. I explore the sonic articulations of the Christian religion by engaging visual, textual, and audible sources, theological and cultural ideas, and systemic and audiovisualogical processes. ... more

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